Summer is the time for what we like to call "big-batch salads," hearty dishes that are large enough to serve about 12 to 16 people, making them ideal for picnics and barbecues.
We focus our big-batch salads around a base of either pasta or rice, and use a variety of veggies, herbs and nuts to pack a walloping punch of flavor. Each spring, I create a new salad recipe to add to our big-batch repertoire, and this year I wanted to showcase Sicilian flavors. So I turned to my husband, Tony, for inspiration.
I'd already determined that I would use penne noodles and radicchio, a slightly bitter, leafy, dark red vegetable that is commonly used in Sicilian cuisine. Tony recommended adding classic Sicilian flavor-builders including green olives, basil, capers, pine nuts and red wine vinegar. The result is a dish I'm calling Confetti Pasta Salad, a name inspired by its beautiful showcase of Sicilian summer flavors.
My father-in-law, Giovanni, was born and raised in Ragusa, Sicily, and he loved radicchio. With its brilliant purple-red tone and tightly packed head of leaves, radicchio is commonly mistaken for cabbage, but it's a member of the chicory family and is also known as Italian chicory. Its leaves are thinner and more tender than cabbage, and it has a slightly bitter tone that provides a great balance to the briny tang of the capers and green olives.
Penne noodles are ideal for this dish, as their firm texture holds up well over several days and their tubular shape makes them perfect for capturing smaller ingredients like capers, green onions and pine nuts.
The pasta should be cooked just until al dente, or "to the tooth," meaning that the pasta is firm to the bite. When making a pasta salad, I rinse the noodles under cold water as soon as they leave the pot, to temper the heat and prevent them from becoming mushy.
In addition to Sicilian components, this salad also features cherry tomatoes, green onions and an orange bell pepper. When prepping the vegetables, it's important to consider how they will best be enjoyed within the salad to ensure that each bite is filled with a variety of flavors.
I cut the cherry tomatoes in half for a big burst of juicy goodness, while the bell pepper is sliced into strips just slightly shorter than the penne noodles. The green onions are chopped into small pieces, and the radicchio is chopped into strips, or shreds, just a bit longer than the noodles, about 2 inches long and a quarter-inch wide.
Red wine vinaigrette is Tony's secret weapon for most salads, and this basic combination of just red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil is so flavorful that most people don't believe us when we tell them there are just two ingredients.
Confetti Pasta Salad is easy to make, nutritious and best when prepared at least 24 hours in advance of serving, thus allowing the flavors to meld together. The result is a refreshing, beautiful and delicious salad that is filled with the flavors of Sicily.
You can find more great big-batch recipes online at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com
Confetti Pasta Salad
Serves: 12 to 16
1 pound penne pasta, cooked to al dente according to directions on package, drained and rinsed in cold water
1 orange bell pepper, cut into thin strips about ¾ inch long
1 cup green olives, pitted and halved
3 green onions, finely chopped
¼ cup basil leaves, either small leaves or torn pieces (finely chopped or chiffonade will be too strong)
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
½ head radicchio, shredded
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, more for extra heat as desired
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, optional
Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and use a large spatula to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired, starting with a teaspoon of kosher salt and ½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper.
If desired, garnish with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese just before serving and lightly toss to combine.
Refrigerate salad for at least one hour before serving, or overnight for best results. May be made up to 24 hours in advance of serving. Leftovers may be refrigerated for several days.
Recipe Time Capsule:
This week in...
• 2017: Sarah's Summer Farro Salad
• 2015: Classic Strawberry Shortcake
• 2013: Tony's Grilled Veggies
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 13-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.